Throughout much of the early and middle 20th Century, Miami's black residents were confined to specific areas through restrictive covenants, racial violence, and exclusionary zoning. By 1930, these local policies and practices restricted most of Miami's 29,000 black residents to a small area outside of downtown Miami known as "Colored Town," now Overtown. The growing neighborhood became black Miami's commercial and cultural center. Yet the district also suffered from substandard housing, public health issues, overpopulation, rental price gouging, and insufficient municipal services, including unpaved roads and inconsistent trash collection. During this time, Colored Town's housing stock consisted of various cramped one-story wooden "shotgun" shacks that often lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Absentee white landowners owned most of these overcrowded, dilapidated, and fire-prone properties and often charged residents inflated rents while providing minimal upkeep. As Miami's Central Business District expanded, local leaders continued to explore public and private methods to maintain or strengthen the established color line, along with various proposals to clear the neighborhood entirely.
The New Deal was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policy response to the Great Depression. It consisted of various federal programs designed to provide economic relief, recovery, and reform to the country. While focused on national transformation, New Deal agencies attempted to tailor their solutions to local problems by working with state and local leaders to stabilize and expand existing regional economies. During this time, Florida received some of the highest per capita expenditures of New Deal funds in the South. New Deal-era building programs radically transformed Miami's social and physical landscape and helped make it a premier tourist destination and year-round residential community. Federal funds were used to build greater Miami's harbors, bridges, highways, utilities, airports, community centers, libraries, and schools, along with other public works to effectively stimulate growth in South Florida's tourism and construction sectors. Local leaders, however, used this influx of investment in Miami's built environment to expand on existing patterns of racial segregation and often excluded black workers from construction jobs.
In 1937, the Miami Housing Authority opened the first public housing development in Florida, Liberty Square. The development was one of the first public housing projects in the nation to serve black residents. Miami's white leaders lobbied for the federally funded development in an effort to relocate blacks from the city's expanding Central Business District and simultaneously engage in slum clearance in "Colored Town" (Overtown). Liberty Square was built on a vacant area outside of the City of Miami, roughly 5 miles north of Overtown. By 1939, there were 730 residents in Liberty Square. Local black leaders were largely excluded from the project's planning process, but supported the development with the hope that it would alleviate overcrowding in Overtown. Conditions in Liberty Square's one and two-story row houses were much better than other areas of black Miami as the new units included tile floors, bathrooms, a kitchen sink, and running water. The development also included a community center that contained a doctor's office and cooperative store, among other amenities. At the time, many New Deal planners considered Liberty Square one of the finest examples of low-cost housing in the U.S. The project faced local resistance from white residents concerned about changes to the existing racial boundaries and by landowners who worried that federally subsidized housing threatened their significant real estate interests in black Miami's highly profitable rental market. In an effort to maintain the prevailing racial geography, planners built a concrete 'race wall' to divide the Liberty Square development from the surrounding white neighborhoods.
The Coconut Grove Committee for Slum Clearance was created in 1948. Father Theodore Gibson, an influential black leader, and Elizabeth Virrick, a middle-class white woman, formed this grassroots interracial committee to improve conditions in the black sections of the Grove. One of the oldest settlements in the Miami area, Coconut Grove was largely divided between a white, upper and middle-class community and a sizable black, mostly Bahamian community. The black section of the Grove faced rampant real estate speculation from white landowners, substandard housing conditions, overcrowding, and limited access to basic municipal services, including police protection and running water. Chaired by Virrick, the advocacy committee effectively organized around various efforts related to sanitation, services, and high rents. This included successfully connecting the black Grove to the water supply and sewage disposal systems as well as overseeing the assignment of a black police officer to the area. The group also organized neighborhood cleanups and a media campaign that attempted to pressure local landowners to decrease high rents. In 1950, the committee acquired 11,000 signatures to place a zoning item up for a vote in a public referendum. The item received citywide approval, allowing the City of Miami to rezone portions of Coconut Grove to effectively stop the construction of new slum housing in the neighborhood.
The postwar period saw a large demographic and spatial reorganization of America's cities. New Deal housing finance reforms, the G.I. Bill, and the expansion of the national highway system helped to significantly increase suburban development after World War II. Between 1940 and 1950, Miami-Dade County's population grew by 84%, reaching 495,000 residents in 1950 . The greatest amount of growth in Miami during this time was in suburban communities, which grew 151% from just 54,000 residents in 1940 to 135,000 in 1950. In the postwar decades, the Miami metro area completely transformed from a seasonal tourist destination into a permanent urban environment in part due to the mass introduction of residential air conditioning in the mid-1950s. As white residents began to move to the growing suburbs, many black households began pushing past the residential color line into the neighborhoods being left behind. In Miami, this racial transition was largely caused by a variety factors including a rising black population, speculative interests by real estate developers, black preferences for better housing options, and redlining decisions. These dynamics, along with the removal of racial covenants and race-based zoning, led to the increasing racial transition of the Liberty City, Brownsville, and Opa-locka sections of Miami by the early 1950s.
In the postwar period, property owners began constructing new concrete apartment structures in Miami, which became known widely as 'Concrete Monsters.' This term, coined by Elizabeth Virrick, described the compact, two- to three-story concrete apartment buildings that began to quickly dominate the built environment in black Miami after 1945. Between 1946 and 1950, 120 of these concrete tenements-a total of 1,600 units-were built in Overtown. Many local developers and landlords used Federal Housing Agency mortgages to build these private rental complexes in an effort to continue to profit from segregated housing in opposition to rising pressures from Miami's growing housing reform movement and federal anti-slum legislation. Property owners frequently charged renters high rates for units in these overcrowded, inadequately maintained properties. These developments usually contained 12 to 16 units and many had severe plumbing and drainage issues, low-ceilings, no street lighting, and limited green space. By the early 1950s, much of the new black rental housing being built in Brownsville, Liberty City, and Coconut Grove were in these type of poorly planned and cheaply built concrete structures.
James E. Scott Homes was the second black public housing project constructed in Miami-Dade County after Liberty Square. Built in 1953 and located in the north central section of Miami, Scott Homes was the largest public housing project in the County, eventually containing 754 units. The development was built over Para Villa, a black neighborhood of about 100 residents. Para Villa's black homeowners organized against the redevelopment of their property and met with federal officials to determine an alternative location for the public housing project. These homeowners were later assisted by white property rights advocates to stop the project. Despite these protests, the combined efforts of federal officials and local housing reformers, including Theodore Gibson and Elizabeth Virrick, ultimately led to the Scott Homes housing project being built at the site. Scott Homes and the adjacent public housing complex, Carver Homes, later became known as Scott-Carver. Scott-Carver was collectively one of the largest public housing communities in Florida, containing 850 total public housing units in a series of low-rise, mostly barracks-style buildings.
In 1956, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, also known as the Interstate and Defense Highway Act. This Act, which authorized funding for an interstate highway network to link major metropolitan areas, had a profound impact on the nation's residential patterns and the built environment. That same year, Florida planning officials acquired federal funds to begin constructing high-speed, urban expressways within the state's 1,160-mile interstate network. During this time, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, the Urban Land Institute, and state highway officials, among others, promoted using federal highway construction to clear blighted urban neighborhoods and recapture valuable central-city land. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s, massive highway construction significantly increased suburban development in the U.S. while also leading to the destruction of long established, mostly poor and minority neighborhoods in central cities. In 1956, the Florida State Road Department created plans that routed Interstate 95 (I-95) through central portions of Overtown. To better allow for the westward expansion of the Central Business District, state transportation planners rejected an alternative route, proposed by the City of Miami, that effectively preserved residential areas like Overtown by using a vacant industrial corridor for the downtown expressway. The state plan was adopted by the county commission and endorsed by local media, business groups, and various public officials. The construction of the north-south expressway in Miami-Dade County ran roughly from 1957 to 1968.
In March 1958, the Miami Herald ran an investigative series on slumlords and housing conditions in Miami. In these articles, reporters traced the close personal links between the director of Miami's slum clearance office, Francis Kelly, and local slumlords. The Miami Herald found that Luther Brooks, a local political operator whose management company represented many of the city's slumlords, had leveraged his personal relationship with the director of the Department of Slum Clearance to have his clients blatantly avoid code enforcement. One article reported that the director had not forced a single property owner affiliated with Brooks to make repairs to substandard properties or demolish hazardous buildings at risk of fire or collapse despite being issued repair and condemnation orders. Another piece pointed out that there had been 4 major fires in the past year in severely deteriorated buildings where repair notices had been ordered, but never actually carried out. The series illustrated to Herald readers how the city's powerful real estate interests hindered housing policy and redevelopment efforts in order to protect their financial interests.
Between 1959 and 1980, over 800,000 Cubans came to the U.S. with a vast majority settling in Miami. By the 1970s, Miami had the second largest concentration of Cubans outside of Havana. This influx came in various waves and had a profound impact on Miami's residential patterns. During the 1960s, Miami's Central Business District was in decline due to increased suburbanization, leaving the area just to the west and southwest with aging housing stock, vacant lots, cheap rents, and fading businesses. Many of the Cuban arrivals began clustering in this neighborhood, which became known as Little Havana, and in the City of Hialeah. This influx encouraged further suburban flight from both of these communities. In Little Havana, Cuban exiles and immigrants established a thriving enclave economy and converted older, single-family homes into multiple-unit dwellings, significantly increasing residential density in the area. The residential expansion of Cubans also limited black housing opportunities and created growing concerns from the black community around issues related to jobs, housing, education, and social progress. The considerable level of federal support provided to the Cuban community and their emerging political power further exacerbated racial tensions in the area. The rapid influx of Cubans as well as other Latin and Caribbean groups into Miami in the late 20th century completely transformed the social fabric of the city.
From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, housing reformer Elizabeth Virrick published a monthly newsletter focused on housing and public planning called Ink. By the mid-1950s, Virrick had acquired considerable local influence on issues related to housing and redevelopment. During this time, she began using her extensive media connections and Ink to critically examine housing policy, the effects of substandard housing conditions on Miami's black communities, and the political connections of local slumlords. In 1964, Virrick renamed the periodical Ink: The Journal of Civic Affairs and released a series of columns focused on Miami's expressway project. In these pieces, Virrick assessed the potential negative consequences of the expressway plan for black Miami. Inspired by Jane Jacobs and other neighborhood preservation efforts, Virrick called for a complete reevaluation of the project. Ink was an important platform for advocacy around housing policy, slum clearance, and housing displacement in Miami. The journal, along with Virrick's tireless advocacy, helped to keep housing issues in the public consciousness.
In the mid-1960s, the I-95 expressway project ran right through the heart of Overtown, leveling blocks of dense commercial and residential development. The east-west interchange alone dislocated 10,000 residents and razed nearly 40 blocks of Overtown's main business district. Between 1960 and 1971, the Overtown area lost an estimated 18,000 total residents-about half its population-to highway construction, code enforcement, and urban renewal projects. The proposed expressway route through Overtown received little direct challenge by residents, and local leaders generally supported the project as an instrument of slum clearance and economic development. The Greater Miami Urban League, the Miami Times, and Elizabeth Virrick advocated for the need to link highway building with relocation services. Despite these efforts, very few of the displaced residents received any relocation assistance. The building of I-95 also had a massive impact on local residential patterns by accelerating racial transition in formerly white areas along the fringes of the color line in the central portions of Miami-Dade County. Displacement of poor, minority communities by urban highway construction was replicated in various other cities throughout the nation, including Los Angeles, Camden, and Atlanta. Federal highway building destroyed roughly 330,000 units nationwide between 1957 and 1968.
The Metro-Dade Department of Housing and Urban Development was established in 1968. In 1957, Miami-area residents adopted a home rule charter and established a new countywide metropolitan government. The charter created a two-tiered system that conferred broad powers to the Dade Metropolitan Government-the first such 'metro' government in the nation-and left various local functions to individual city governments, such as zoning, code enforcement, police and fire protection. The Dade Metropolitan Government was empowered to provide a number of services countywide, including housing, transportation, emergency management, parks, water and sewer, among other public functions, for both Miami's various municipalities and a vast unincorporated area. The Metro-Dade County Department of Housing and Urban Development, then known as 'Little HUD,' consolidated various housing and redevelopment agencies in the late 1960s to begin serving the entire county. Miami-Dade County Department of Public Housing and Community Development currently oversees federal, state, and local housing programs at the county-level.
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, roughly 60,000 Haitians arrived to the Miami area. Fleeing political persecution and seeking economic opportunity in the U.S., many Haitians faced prejudice upon arriving in Miami and began to establish various community organizations to assist new migrants with asylum claims and relocation. This migration had a significant impact on local residential patterns as Haitian residents began concentrating in an area to the northeast of downtown Miami, which became known as Little Haiti, and in the City of North Miami. During this time, a vibrant enclave economy began to grow in the Little Haiti area in the form of various brightly painted shops, restaurants, and markets. In 1987, community members formed the Little Haiti Housing Association to create affordable housing opportunities for residents in the Little Haiti neighborhood. Their services eventually grew to include emerging Haitian communities in the North Miami area. The Little Haiti Housing Association is now known as the Haitian American Community Development Corporation and the organization currently provides various housing services, including homebuyer counseling and tenant education.
Congress launched the HOPE VI program in 1993 to demolish and redevelop distressed public housing developments. Between 1993 and 2010, the HOPE VI program demolished over 150,000 units of public housing nationwide and committed almost $6 billion to the redevelopment of over 200 public housing projects like Cabrini-Green in Chicago, which for many had come to symbolize the institutional failures of high-rise public housing and concentrated poverty. The initiative sought to revitalize troubled public housing with better designed mixed-income, smaller scale developments that would decrease the social isolation of low-income communities. HOPE VI projects provided residents with more amenities and included numerous innovations in public housing design, finance, and management. However, HOPE VI redevelopment projects have also led to reductions in the number of available public housing units and resident displacement.
In 1998, the federal district court in Miami approved a landmark settlement that protects the civil liberties of homeless residents. During the 1980s, there were roughly 6,000 unsheltered homeless individuals on the street in the Miami area and just 1,000 shelter beds available. In an effort to push homeless residents from the city, the Miami Police Department would routinely arrest homeless individuals for various activities of basic daily life that are difficult to avoid without access to any available shelter services, like sleeping on the street or urinating in public. During this time, Miami police performed mass arrests of homeless residents and regularly seized and destroyed homeless people's personal property. In 1988, the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the City of Miami, arguing that these practices violated the constitutional rights of homeless residents. After a decade of appeals and proceedings, the City of Miami and the ACLU negotiated a settlement agreement in 1998. This historic court agreement limits the power of Miami police to arrest homeless residents for harmless minor offenses that are considered "life sustaining" if there are no shelter spaces available and created new policies around the handling of homeless individual's personal property.
In 1999, the Miami-Dade County housing agency received a $35 million dollar HOPE VI grant to replace the deteriorating Scott-Carver public housing developments. Between 1999 and 2004, 850 units of the James E. Scott and Carver Homes were demolished, displacing 1,150 residents. After six years and millions of dollars spent; only three homes had been built. A Pulitzer-winning investigation by the Miami Herald, called "House of Lies," revealed gross mismanagement on the part of the housing agency, as well as double billing by contractors and consultants. Moreover, the housing agency lost track of hundreds of residents, some of whom were permanently relocated as a result of the demolition. The scandal, along with other operational problems, led the county agency to be temporarily taken over the federal government. At the same time, former tenants, in collaboration with the Community Justice Project, Power U for Social Change, and the Miami Workers Center, engaged in civil rights lawsuits and direct action to restore promised affordable units to displaced residents. In 2008, the county reached a deal with a developer to complete the remaining units. The new Northpark at Scott Carver development opened in 2012 with 350 mixed-income rental units in various apartments and townhouses.
Take Back the Land was a Miami-based land and housing rights movement formed by Max Rameau, a local activist and community organizer. Rameau started the campaign as a response to the housing crisis and growing redevelopment pressures on low-income communities. In 2006, a group of homeless residents led by Take Back the Land seized an empty lot in Liberty City and built an encampment, Umoja (the Swahili word for "unity") Village. This shanty town was described by the organizers as both a social service for the residents and a political statement about the stark levels of housing need and poverty in Miami. For six months, over 150 homeless residents inhabited Umoja Village, which received national news attention. The squatter village was eventually abandoned after a fire partially destroyed the settlement. During the housing crisis, when numerous properties were foreclosed on and left vacant, Take Back the Land and other local activists began moving homeless families into these vacant units, matching "homeless people with people-less homes." Rameau maintained that these actions were necessary despite being illegal. In 2008, Take Back the Land formed a national network of organizations dedicated to helping low-income individuals locate affordable homes.
In 2015, Miami-Dade County announced a $300 million initiative to redevelop the aging Liberty Square and Lincoln Gardens public housing developments. After a competitive bidding process, the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners awarded the project to Miami-based Related Urban Development Group in 2016. Related Group's 1,500-unit redevelopment plan contains 750 new public housing units and various new amenities, including a community center, grocery store, and museum. The county will contribute $46 million in the comprehensive green-certified mixed-use project. The initiative, known as 'Liberty Square Rising,' is the largest public housing redevelopment project in Miami-Dade County history.